Recently I sat down to give my "about" page a bit of a refresh, and somewhat unexpectedly (because I had been intending on doing this for a long time, and generally stared at a blank page until losing focus) a whole story poured out. I don't think I've ever done this before: wrote about my journey and influences, taken a step back to reflect on how I ended up here and what shaped my interests and passions. Suddenly, it was all on the page and I thought "well, duh." But maybe not "duh," because I don't always share about these things, and the older I get, the more divorced from my beginning I become. I'm sure much of this will ultimately make it's way onto the "about" page, but since it turned out that I actually had something to say, here you go!
Old-world techniques, Modern innovation
My love of baking has been a lifelong journey— but for the sake of brevity, let’s say that it started back in 2007 when I attended Johnson & Wales University for baking & pastry arts. I didn’t know it at the time, but this classical French pastry education completely rebuilt the foundation of my ever-growing love affair with baking, and I learned more than a few things that have stuck with me through the years. Classic formulas, timeless flavors, and a mastery of the main components that comprise nearly all desserts. Above all, I gained an understanding of the science behind baking, the reasoning behind the rules, and the inclination (and ability) to selectively break them. While attending school, I worked as the lead cake decorator for an all-vegan and gluten-free bakery, where I learned innovative and uncompromising ways to accommodate special diets, and again rethink the rules of classical pastries. This juxtaposition of old-world techniques and modern ambitions carries through so much of my work today, but it wasn’t until after I had graduated that I realized where my heart belonged in all this sugar.
Food begins with Farmers... and so I became one (kind of)
In school, I had one chef in particular that impressed on me an idea that grew into an entire approach— quality begins at the ingredients, and the ingredients begin with farmers. Our work, our art, is inseparable. As I moved on from college, this idea took root, and all the sudden I had a new set of interests and curiosities. After graduation, I moved to Bar Harbor, Maine and spent a season making (100+) pies every day, shaping bagels, and climbing mountains by the sea, but I knew that I still had so much more to learn and yearned for a new adventure. Still nearly at the beginning of my journey, I took over a year-long sabbatical from professional baking and began interning on farms. I traveled to Ireland and spent the full-length of my visa living and working on an organic family farm. When it was time to move on (or so said the stamp in my passport), I headed to Spain and spent a brief but impactful time working on an old-world olive orchard, serving as both a farm hand and a personal chef to the family and guests. I harvested produce from a modest garden patch, turned it into meals to share with others, and I found what it meant to create food with love. If I had to pick a single moment, this is why I do what I do.
Food is community, Community is Food
Back stateside, I found a new home in the Pacific Northwest, in Astoria, Oregon. Working at an organic bakery & cafe, I saw my first real example of what it looks like to run an ethically-guided bakery. Our purchasing decisions were intentional, and we worked as a collective, employee-owned business. Happily back in the kitchen, I finally had the opportunity to work alongside farmers to create our menu items. A restless curiosity and adaptability took me into nearly every department of the cafe— from barista, to line cook, to pastries, and ultimately to reviving and running their cake program. For the first time, I truly felt a part of the community that food fosters. I found a new family in my work, and spent my days off volunteering on local farms, foraging for mushrooms, and learning about seasonal produce and the specialties of the PNW. Ultimately, it was time to move on, and I bopped around Portland for a few years, working as a pastry chef, falling in love with eating flowers, and tending my own home garden before finally relocating to Bellingham. Here I started my first fully-edible flower garden and Gathered was born. I had seen glimpses that there was a better way to do things, and set out to do just that.
While still in constant evolution, Gathered embodies all of this— classical French pastry techniques, modern innovation, botanical inspiration, sustainable sourcing, and community support as the compass guiding business decisions. I put my whole heart into my work, and hope to never stop learning.
If you want to learn more about the farms and farmers that I work with to create Gathered goodies, check out my sourcing page and keep an eye out for the next post, all about the language of food politics and my attempt to navigate those waters without feeling like a hypocritical fraud. Yikes!
Over my years as a cake designer, I’ve had a growing love affair with flowers. It’s probably my favorite way to adorn desserts, be it with a sprinkling of dried petals, pressed into a shortbread cookie, or an elaborate floral sculpture atop a cake. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about identifying flowers and knowing what can and can’t be paired with your desserts. In my last post, I went over some of my favorite edible flower varieties— you’ll see these sprinkled into my desserts as often as possible!
Now the less fun part: flowers that should keep some distance from your food. These aren’t necessarily the most poisonous plants, but they are all very popular in arrangements, and unfortunately varieties I’ve seen used to decorate food over the years. With wedding cakes, this often happens when a florist decorates the cake after the baker delivers. I get it— coordinating cake flowers to match the rest of a wedding can be tricky. Floral designs are often dictated by trends, color palettes, and seasonal availability, but your favorite centerpiece flower just might not be suited for desserts. Despite the frustration, using only edible varieties guarantees that your beautiful and delicious dessert won't send you to the hospital!
Sorry in advance for spoiling these beauties...
and if this list leaves you feeling disheartened, head on over to my last post all about the flowers that you CAN eat!
This one makes me really sad, because I flippin’ love these flowers! They bloom in the late winter when everything else is far out of season, they are fascinatingly beautiful and come in the most wonderful shades of muted purple, pink and green. They are also CRAZY poisonous, like don’t even get it near your plate poisonous. The roots are the most potent, but the toxins are found all throughout the plant. While the level of toxicity has been reported in varying degrees, some have reported skin irritation just from physical contact. As much as it pains me to say it, these guys fall in the “don’t even let it touch your plate” category. In fact, the name “hellebore” comes from the Greek “elein” meaning to injure, and “bora” meaning food… so basically, it’ll hurt you to put this on your food.
Anemone & Ranunculus
I’m grouping these two together for a few reasons: they’re both in the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), they are both very popular choices for wedding arrangements, and I see them all the time in cake designs. Nearly every member of the Ranunculaceae family is known for containing at least some level of toxicity, and these varieties are no exception. As it turns out, people don’t seem to be getting regularly ill from the frequency that these flowers are used in cake designs, but for me they fall in the “better safe than sorry” category, especially given the number of times I’ve seen a brazen child or a goofy uncle pluck a few petals off the cake for a taste.
From Wikipedia: "All Ranunculus species are poisonous when eaten fresh, but their acrid taste and the blistering of the mouth caused by their poison means they are usually left uneaten." Ack!
Okay, to be honest I’m mostly including this one on the list because it’s a great example of how NOT perfect I’ve been over the years. As it turns out, ONE variety of hyacinth is edible- grape hyacinth (also known as muscari). It looks a good deal different from the other varieties, making it easy to identify. But a few years ago, I mistakenly assumed that because I knew this one kind of hyacinth was edible, that the rest must be as well. While I did sample several hyacinth flowers without any negative repercussions, they have since been relegated to the “lessons learned” category in my mind. They're clearly not as toxic as some other types of flowers (given my continued health,) but this did teach me an important lesson about making assumptions and verifying information about these sorts of things.
These are by no means all the flowers you ought to watch out for! Read more here about poisonous flowers, and always do some research if you're at all uncertain about a flower's toxicity.
Photo credit: Thanks to Pozie by Natalie and Wild Rye Farm for lending their beautiful flowers for this post.
Further reading & resources:
As my love of cake design has grown over the years, it evolved hand-in-hand with an ever-growing love of flowers. But when we’re talking about cake flowers, there are more considerations than aesthetics to keep in mind. If something is being placed on food (as opposed to being in a bouquet) it’s a whole lot more important to understand the edibility of the flowers, in addition to their history and growing conditions.
Our sacred food pact
I know, it sounds a bit hokey or intense. But I do take this ish pretty serious— as a food producer, there's an implied trust between me and those that I feed: I prioritize your health and safety through sanitary practices and transparency, and you in turn trust that the food I give you will not make you ill. It’s a small and unspoken pact we all have with our food suppliers, but it is necessary for our entire system to work, and is worth noting and respecting. In my case, this means that if I want to adorn my creations with fresh floral elements (spoiler: I do!), it is my responsibility to research and educate myself about flower varieties, and when appropriate, pass that information along to you.
Over the years, I’ve eaten a lot of flowers, some of which I probably shouldn’t have— there has certainly been a learning curve! Several years ago, I planted a whole bed of sweet peas only to learn they are one of the few pea varieties that you actually can't eat. But I’ve learned from each misstep, and along the way have compiled an ever-growing bank of information around eating flowers. Now, I know, most of the time you wouldn’t actually eat the floral arrangements on cakes, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it even with the most harmless of varieties— because who wants a mouthful of raw foliage with their dessert course? And realistically, most edible flowers don't actually taste all that great. But at the end of the day, you just never know! Most people trust that if a chef puts something on your plate, it won’t hurt you to eat it. It’s a fair assumption, and while most people won’t actually, many (especially children) are curious enough to give it a try. Heck, I’ve eaten TONS of these flowers over the years, just because I can, because I’m curious, or because I tell myself it’s for “professional education.” To be honest, I just conceptually like the romantic notion of eating flowers, but I also have a healthy respect for the fact that not all varieties should be (literally) on the table.
Over the next few months, as local flowers explode back onto the market and as my personal flower garden grows, I’ll be doing regular installments of “flower food” highlights, where I really dive into the details on my favorite edible blooms. While my list of edible flowers is staggeringly long and ever-growing, I’ve compiled some of my favorites here. Some I’m sure you’re aware of, some are new even to me, and some I’m sure I haven’t even learned of yet and will have to come back and add in later.
In my next post, I’ll go over a few varieties that are best left out of food designs. They’re kind of a bummer, because these are also some of my favorite flower varieties in arrangements. But I see them all-too-commonly used in food designs and if I'm being honest, it kind of makes my skin crawl. Check back for the next installment to learn what NOT to decorate your wedding cake with.
Photo credit: Thanks to Pozie by Natalie and Wild Rye Farm for lending their beautiful flowers for this post.
Further reading & resources:
I've been sitting on this post for awhile now. It started as a fun inspirational exercise in the lull following wedding season, and then the holidays hit and it moved to the bloggy back-burner. It seems fitting to be pulling it back out again now, at the onset of a new year, with big aspirations and a boatload of appreciation for the past year of meeting many of the other amazing, creative women that inspire me on a daily basis.
Every fall I donate a number of cakes during what I've taken to calling "charity banquet season", when seemingly all of the organizations that host annual galas try to squeeze their event in between summer madness and holiday festivities. Around here, nearly every one of these events includes a "dessert dash" where guests collectively bid on donated desserts for their table to share after dinner.
It's a great way to give back to the community in the form of cake, and I always love projects with complete creative freedom. This year, I decided to turn all of these dessert dash cakes into a creative project: a series of cakes all inspired by the work of some of my favorite local artisans.
It really was a combination of all of my favorite things: giving back to organizations that do so much for our local community, supporting other women entrepreneurs, pushing my creative boundaries and trying new techniques.
Charity benefit: Humane Society of Whatcom County
Flavors: gluten-free brown butter cake with caramel apple filling
I picked LMinspired as the first inspiration because it embodies many of the same styles I love in cake designs: classic, natural, elegant and perfectly rough around the edges. Lauren's jewelry pushed me to play with texture in new ways, which is slowly becoming my new obsession with cake designs. This layered buttercream technique is one you'll definitely be seeing more of from me-- in fact I already did another version in cake #3!
Charity benefit: Whatcom Women in Business
Flavors: gluten-free brown butter cake, slow-roasted blueberries, goat cheese and honey frosting
Inspiration: Art by Ciara
Adapting Ciara's art into a cake pushed me to do more of a literal translation than any of the other cakes. I definitely learned that if I'm going to do more ink-and-pen style cakes (which I'd definitely love to!), I really need to get a finer tipped paintbrush. The watercolor backdrop was comfortably familiar, but working with Ciara's color palette pulled me a bit outside of my greys-and-neutrals comfort zone.
With this project, I think I learned the most about working with activated charcoal as a black food coloring. Getting the perfect consistency for painting lines without clumping or dripping took some trial and error, but definitely became much easier when I switched from mixing the charcoal with water to Everclear-- the fast evaporation of alcohol keeps the lines cleaner.
Charity benefit: Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center
Flavors: matcha green tea cake with chocolate buttercream
Inspiration: Some Girl's Pottery
Aside from loving all of the texture found in ceramic art, Dyana once made my all-time favorite coffee cup, and it seemed only right to honor it in cake form. I was excited to play around more with layered buttercream in different ways, as well as using stencils in cake design. I hand-cut the geese design with an exacto knife, and will definitely need to find a better way before diving into more stenciled designs!
Charity benefit: Blue Skies for Children
Flavors: brown butter & caramel apple
Inspiration: Pozie by Natalie
When I set out on this project, I knew that Natalie's floral artistry had to be on the list. While her work does constantly inspire me, it's really the tenacity and dedication she brings to her work that I admire most. I was lucky to find some of the same dahlia varieties from Wild Rye Farm for this cake, and absolutely loved how the hand-painted ferns work as a backdrop to the recreate the lusciousness of an intimate forest wedding.
Charity Benefit: Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County
Flavors: parsnip, cardamom, candied ginger with cream cheese Italian buttercream
Inspiration: Frankie & Maude
The mother-daughter team behind Frankie & Maude make absolutely stunning wedding gowns, with an impeccable combination of lush fabrics, timeless silhouettes, and vintage inspiration. Their classic designs were more of a challenge to interpret into a cake design, and this one ended up feeling the most like a "mood-piece" and less of a literal translation. I wanted to capture the texture of that sanded satin skirt with the subtle blush and ivory layered buttercream, and pulled a very 70s inspired flower from the lace pattern as inspiration for the minimalist piping under the orchids.
The gorgeous dress photo was shot by Solovey.inc for their most recent line.
I have such a hard time picking favorites. I really do. At least once per season I can be heard exclaiming “THIS is my favorite time of year!”
In truth, I really just think that I love transition, the newness of the seasons and the sense of potential and promise that come from a fresh start. My favorite season is the first two weeks of every season.
But, if it really came down to it, my truly favorite season is autumn. Specifically early autumn. The bounty of summer harvest is still in full swing, the trees begin dropping leaves in a kaleidoscope of flaming hues, the oppressive heat of summer softens comfortably with the occasional brisk breeze, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s also my birthday season!
The pace of life begins to slow, and in contrast to the don’t-miss-a-thing, fever-pitch of summer, I begin finding moments to sip slowly on my morning coffee. I find myself lazily daydreaming as I watch the fog rolling in off the bay and find comfort in a familiar wool sweater, pulled once again from it’s cedar-lined summer home.
Best yet, it’s finally cool enough to consider turning on my home oven, and the warming-spices of winter are back in my baking arsenal.
So, when I decided to include a quarterly post highlighting my favorite seasonal recipes, autumn seemed like the only place to start.
Since childhood, fall has always meant wandering through u-pick apple orchards and sipping on fresh pressed apple cider. I know that autumn means pumpkin spice to many, but for me it’s unequivocally apple cider. This recipe might be all of my most nostalgic flavors all rolled into one: deep, toasty caramel, fresh-pressed apple cider, rich custard with a kiss of green cardamom, all wrapped in a classic buttery vanilla bean tart crust.
I love the 1-2-3 tart dough recipe from Brave Tart and wouldn’t change a thing! It rolls out, patches in a most forgiving way, and is perfect for sweet and tender crusts. Plus, (if you remember from my last post) I love recipes that are built off of classic ratios. I would definitely recommend opting for the addition of fresh vanilla bean, though.
The custard recipe is a very slight adaptation of the baked custard tart from Butter Baking with the small adjustment of adding of 1/2 tsp of cardamom with the cream. I also made the recipe into 10 individual tarts rather than one large one and baked, as directed, until the custard had just the slightest wobble to it.
The real show-stopper here, though, is the apple cider caramel. THIS is what it’s really all about. Smooth and creamy, and with an impressive depth of apple flavor, this caramel is just as good eaten by the spoon as anything else, but I like it best with a creamy custard or ice cream to balance the sweetness.
Tart dough: Follow the directions, adding the optional 1/2 vanilla bean, and baking in 10 mini tart shells. Pre-bake shells with weights (I use dry beans and a cupcake liner) until very lightly golden.
Custard: Follow recipe for custard, adding 1/2 tsp ground green cardamom to the heated cream. Fill the tarts 3/4 with custard, leaving a bit a room for the layer of caramel on top.
Apple cider caramel:
8 oz (1 cup) fresh pressed apple cider
1 oz (2 Tablespoons) heavy cream
6 oz sugar
1-2 oz water, just enough to wet the sugar
2 oz (4 Tablespoons, 1/2 stick) butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
- Reduce apple cider to 3 oz
- Combine cream with hot cider reduction and set aside, but do not allow to cool completely
- Combine sugar and water in a thick-bottom, medium sized pot. The sugar will bubble up a lot when the cream/cider is added, so leave extra room. Stir so that the sugar is completely wet.
- Heat over medium-high, but do not stir at all once heating. If the sugar begins to crystallize on the edges of the pot, gently brush with a wet pastry brush to wash down the crystals.
- Cook until the sugar turns a deep amber brown, occasionally swirling the pot to even out any hot spots.
- Once the sugar has reached desired deep color, remove from heat and gradually add the cream/cider mix, gently stirring with a whisk and allowing the bubbles to subside a bit between additions until all of the liquid is incorporated.
- Add the butter, and whisk until completely melted, then add the vanilla and salt.
- Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, before pouring over the custard.
- Chill before serving.
I’ve been stewing on this blog for what feels like ages, condensing my baking interests into tangible categories (they’re all over the place!) and trying to “find my voice.” I’m a baker, and honest-as-honest, communication isn’t my strongest suit.
As a business owner, I’ve been told time and again that I need to have a blog, usually nested in a long stream of must-haves for successful entrepreneurial endeavors. I liked the idea, but felt like I didn’t know where to go with it, so for awhile it just kind of simmered in the back of my mind. I’d revisit the idea on occasion and ambitiously concluded that I wanted to create something that challenged me creatively and held some common thread through each installment. Full disclosure- I’m still not exactly sure what that will be. But I can tell you a little bit about the things that you’re sure to find here, as I’ve drafted probably half a dozen potential posts over the past few months.
Here’s what I know so far: There’s gonna be a good bit of digging into baking science (because I flippin’ love that stuff!). Everything from ingredient substitution to the chemistry of eggs is fair game. If you’re pretty casual about your baking, that might all seem a bit dense. But if I haven’t dissuaded you entirely yet, I'm hoping you'll enjoy following along as I try to dig deeper into what makes desserts work (or fail, as the case may sometimes be.)
I’ll be writing about what I am learning myself, because it’s a never-ending process and I’m constantly evolving and discovering new things. This list feels endless, but certainly encompasses working with/growing edible flowers, specialty-diet baking, seasonal recipes, and natural food dyes. And, of course, cakes. Lots of cakes.
With all this in mind, it was difficult to know where to start. Thank goodness for the occasional edge from a fellow creative type: enter Caylie Mash, photographer extraordinaire. Caylie approached me about doing a personal highlight for HER blog, and after the initial flattery subsided I felt that amazing surge of inspiration that often happens when two creative individuals collaborate. An end-of-summer highlight on my business didn't feel complete without also including a trip out to one of the many farms I love to source from, where the desserts really begin.
The day started with a visit to one of my favorite local flower growers, Nancy Vekved (find her at Sweet Peas & Carrot Cake), where we walked through the gardens as Nancy pointed out her favorite new blooms and answered all of my million questions. I love the wealth of information you can glean from veteran gardeners, and Nancy is always happy to entertain my curiosities- ranging from plant identification, to the best time to harvest herbs for drying, to "hey, do you know what this flower tastes like?-- and can I eat one??"
Nancy has an incredible garden, meandering and wild to the untrained eye, though methodical and organized upon closer inspection. She specializes in unsprayed flowers, though that day I came for the fig tree, ripe and dripping with fruit. We also found a wealth of perfectly ripe thornless blackberries, and with that inspiration, a dessert plan was born.
These late summer treats always beg to become fruit pies and tarts: simple confections made to let the ripened-to-perfection flavors shine through. This time of year, I like to keep a healthy stock of pie dough in the freezer for such occasions.
With the abundance of pie dough recipes in the world, I've never found anything better than the classic 3-2-1 formula.
That's 3 parts flour : 2 parts fat : 1 part water, by weight.
I prefer an all-butter pie dough made with pastured-raised, grass-fed butter and locally milled pastry flour. Some claim it's best to use some (or all) shortening as the fat in pie dough, as it has a higher melting temperature than butter and so is easier to create a flaky crust with. I've always preferred the flavor that butter lends over the workabilty of shortening, though.
If you're using all butter, be sure to work quickly and keep the dough cool. Don't be afraid to pop it back in the cooler for a few minutes, especially in the summer heat. I also love having a marble slab to roll my pie dough on, as it helps keep the dough chilled. On especially hot days, I'll even chill the marble in the refrigerator before starting to roll my pie dough for some extra working time.
Figs and blackberries are a match made in heaven, and only needed a touch of nutty richness to round out the dish: a creamy brown butter filling to nest atop.
Brown butter filling is another thing you're likely to find stashed in my fridge for last minute dessert emergencies. If I'm being completely honest, these days I usually just eyeball the recipe at about equal parts eggs, sugar, and softened (but not melted) browned butter, and about half as much flour. Add a pinch of salt, the beans scraped out of a vanilla pod, beat until fluffy, and you've got one of the most luscious and versatile fillings I've ever met.
I hope you enjoyed this peek into what my sourcing and process looks like. Check back soon for a post on my favorite autumn recipes and don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list so that you never miss a post!
All photos in the post by Caylie Mash Photography, used with permission.
Between wedding cakes, baking production, and humble gardening ambitions, there's constant experimentation, growth, and a never-ending learning curve. Follow along to see what I'm up to.